Member News: Foster carers should not need worker status to get support and protection, Andy Elvin (TACT)
A survey of more than 200 foster carers for the charity TACT, to be published in the new year, found that 75% saw fostering as a vocation and a lifestyle choice, not a career or a job.
I chair the Fairer Fostering Partnership. All of our members, who are charities or not-for-profit organisations, have clear values and a family-based approach to fostering. None of our agencies take dividends or profits – and all income is reinvested in our foster families, unlike some of the large independent agencies, which pay dividends running into millions of pounds every year to directors and investors.
Providing care in your own home is more profound than employment. Fostering offers the opportunity for a child or young person to experience family life. It is transformative and vocational for carers and the children. Foster carers are sharing one of society’s most fundamental and personal experiences.
Current debates on “workers’ rights” for foster carers focus disproportionately on adults’ rights rather than children’s. Proponents argue that foster carers deserve holiday pay and protection under whistleblowing procedures. At Tact and other not-for-profit fostering agencies, foster carers already have many of these, although with some agencies and local authorities they do not. Tact believes that all foster carers should have these supports and protections but do not need employment or “worker” status to receive them.
Fostering agencies must develop back-up care so children have support when their foster parents are unavailable, as happens in all families across the UK.
Foster carers should not be financially penalised for occasionally using back-up carers; indeed, we would ask the government’s fostering stocktake to recommend that fees are made available to both the main and back-up carers when the main carers are away or seriously ill, which in our experience is not a regular occurrence.
Other demands for the nascent Foster Carers Union for sick pay and access to employment tribunals are more problematic. Parents do not receive sick pay when they are ill and still have to look after their children. However, foster carers, like other self-employed people, do suffer when they are too ill to work – and we would welcome some attention on how this might be addressed. Employment tribunals are for employed staff. Foster carers have access to complaints procedures and an independent panel that oversees and considers disputes between carers and their agency.
Family life is not built around contracts and codified processes; it is built around care, stability, consistency and love. Employment contracts would pose a significant threat to this.
Foster parents have a choice in which children they offer a home; this vital principle and safeguard must not be eroded. Those who pressure and cajole foster parents to accept placements are not acting in the best interests of children. We need to treasure the unique resource our wonderful foster carers provide and celebrate and respect those who open their homes, hearts and families to others.
It is vital that this respect is demonstrated through how the professional networks around children in care interact and take their lead from the foster family. Full and consistent delegated authority needs to be given to foster carers so that decisions about the child’s life are made in the family home. Far too often, local authorities do not give full delegated authority to foster parents, so children are in the unnatural position where their social worker, not their parent, have to give permission for school trips, sleepovers and the like.
Fees and allowances need to be fair and reflect the cost of bringing up children. No one ever gets rich, or even mildly affluent, through fostering. However, we must meet the costs of bringing up children, especially as their needs mean many foster parents must be at home full-time.
Regular training and 24/7 support are vital as our foster carers can find themselves dealing with some challenging situations. These generally arise outside office hours, as they do in all families. In too many local authorities, training is not sufficiently robust – and out-of-hours support is delegated to generic emergency duty teams, who have neither the time nor expertise to support foster parents properly.
Above all, foster parents are the experts on their child. They know more about them than anyone else in the professional network: more than the social worker, GP, teacher or Cafcass guardian; more than anyone outside the birth family. Yet they are seldom heard from directly in court proceedings and often excluded from key meetings. This must stop; the state cares for children through foster parents, it is they – not politicians or social workers – who bring up the children. The system must work through foster parents, not around them.
Andy Elvin is chief executive of Tact and chairs the Fairer Fostering Partnership.
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